I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Democratic National Convention to share my concerns about the misuse of religion during this election – from both parties. The following is remarks I shared at a Faith Caucus meeting just this afternoon:
An electoral process that culminates on Election Day with a high percentage of voter turn-out is to a celebration of democracy what observances of Rosh Hashanah, Eid al-Fitr, Diwali, and Christmas are to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians respectively.
Voting is a sacred act in our civic religion.
But the grand promise of an American presidential campaign is fulfilled by the election not of a religious-leader-in-chief of the nation, but of the commander-in-chief who is the chief executive of our country.
The leader we choose may have a faith of his own, but he must lead members of all faiths present in the nation – as well as those with no faith at all. The Constitution forbids the legal enshrinement of anyone’s religious beliefs, so voters need to know how candidates are prepared to translate their beliefs into policy statements based on universal values.
Those of us who speak of electoral guidelines and advocate adherence to boundaries between institutional religion and partisan politics do so not as stuffy legalists wishing to mute all religious language or pour cold water on the white hot excitement of devotees of a particular candidate.
We call for attentiveness to the proper role of religion in campaigns as thankful citizens who know the importance of religion in a society and recognize in democracy our best hope as a nation.
Insistence on the proper role of religion in the life of the nation is essential–a non-negotiable–for the good of religion, for the constitutional protection of non-religious people, and for the vitality of democracy.
American civil law governing relations between clergy and candidate is uneven. A candidate can turn the pulpit or bema of a house of worship into a political stump – ignoring the non-partisan nature of prayer, faith, worship, meditation, and religious identity – without incurring even as much as a civil reprimand. The house of worship, however, could be threatened with the loss of tax-exempt status for allowing the candidate to campaign there.
Some of the rules that houses of worship must follow to keep their tax exempt status are clear:
- A member of the clergy cannot endorse a candidate in his or her official capacity.
- No institutional money or resources can be used for partisan work.
- Any benefit offered to one candidate – such as the chance to speak at an event – must be available to all candidates.
Wherever they campaign, candidates have certain responsibilities – more subtle, but equally important. Candidates should:
- Provide evidence of their respect for people of all religions or no religion.
- Be sure people understand that they intend to serve all citizens, not just those who are committed to a religious tradition similar to their own.
- Candidates don’t have to speak of their religion, but if they choose to do so, they have an obligation to let voters know how their religion will influence their decision-making and actions in their elected office. Today, many people fear a politician’s use of public office to promote private faith. Tomorrow such fear should be gone.
My desire for the remainder of this election season is rather simple: houses of worship used for worship and meditation, campaign speeches that reflect appreciation for religion as they sketch a secular vision that embraces all Americans; religious leaders’ examinations of sacred texts that interact with critical issues of our day not for the purpose of promoting a particular candidate but for seeking a discovery of truth and a dissemination of hope; candidates honest about their public policy priorities and strategic in their descriptions of how to alter our nation for the better; and neither candidates nor religious leaders wrongly manipulating religion, wrongly assuming that religious faith is a prerequisite for office, wrongly claiming that the concepts of “good, right and moral” are exclusive possessions of a few rather than values that all our nation shares. I long for the backbone of our civil government to be strengthened by candidates who engage each other in civil debates, leave the electorate more informed than divided, and promise, as did John F. Kennedy before them, that they will resign the office of the presidency before they will place the teachings of any religion over the authority of the constitution.
Though no law governs the words and actions of those entrusted with this precious balance between appreciation for religion and devotion to a secular government and no regulation punishes their misdeeds, let us demand that candidates mute their wrongheaded appeals to the misguided notion and theological heresy of “a Christian nation” and turn up the volume of rhetoric sensitive to the glorious complexity of the American faith picture and resolutely dedicated to freedom, rights, liberty and justice for all.
The Interfaith Alliance counsels houses of worship on how to “obey the rules”, but we also challenge political candidates to meet the highest standard of what is right, not simply what is legal.
Winning an election is not worth weakening our constitution or threatening the dynamic of the so far peaceful relationship that has characterized institutional relations between religion and government in this nation.
Religion is strong in our nation, a reason for gratitude, a friend of freedom.
People of faith and goodwill should be among the most avid defenders of the constitution, especially during a national election, demanding that the relationship between religion, government, and politics not be altered so as to compromise religion’s integrity or blunt democracy’s vitality.
My colleagues and I will work tirelessly toward that end and we long to be involved in that work alongside all of you.